Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review of "The Saragossa Manuscript"


Watched this yesterday, as part of the 'research' for the sequel to One Shoe Tale – last saw it at Sussex University in 1976, when it was shown by the Film Society. Then, I thought it was magical, and I was not disappointed this time.

Mystical, surreal, beautiful, and still a good yarn – or rather an increasingly complex sequence of nested good yarns. Not terribly PC; Edward Said would doubtless take offence at the orientalism, and I'm sure that some viewers might not enjoy the rather charged eroticism.

But it is just great, and I feel validated that in the time since I last watched it Martin Scorsese and others have funded the creation of a new print. They obviously like it too.

Oddly, the book on which it is based is really short, and the film does not cover everything that is in the book, and yet it's a really long film. And also oddly, though most of the nested stories are resolved so that we go back to the story in which they are told, the film ends inside the first level of nesting; we don't go back to the original frame tale, in which the manuscript is found. Does the fact that I find this mildly annoying say more about me than it does about the film?

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Why I take pictures of war memorials


Why I post pictures of war memorials

I find war memorials really poignant. I take pictures of every one that I come across; it's become a bit of a tic. It's my tiny way of honouring the people – usually young men – who died, like leaving a little stone on the grave; but it's also a way of making a statement about war and the pity of war.

Most memorials are about the First World War – WW1 or the Great War, if you prefer. There are few hamlets in Europe so small as to not have a memorial to soldiers who died in this war. Since I've tuned in to them I am struck by just how many memorials there are – in schools, colleges, workplaces, railway stations, gardens. Part of the point of taking and posting the pictures is to mark the sheer volume of the memorials. By taking pictures of every one that I encounter I try to convey some sort of comment on the sheer volume of the slaughter. Like the end scene in 'Oh What a Lovely War'; one memorial might glorify war, but hundreds or thousands can't.

Most Western European monuments have a little add-on for WW2, and sometimes for subsequent wars; for Britain and France, the casualties of WW1 far outstrip those who died in WW2. But I've also found memorials for the Crimean War and the Boer War, with great columns of names of young men who died. In Italy I've found Risorgimento memorials, and in Milan railway station there is a Fascist memorial to the young men who died subduing Ethiopia; it is right next to a memorial to young Italian anti-fascist partisans, concretizing the way that Italy manages to have it both ways.

I've seen some unusual ones – there's a memorial to Portuguese soliders who died on the Western Front in Brussels, and I didn't even know that Portugal had been in the First World War. In one small town in Italy I found town with a plaque commemorating the fact that all the young men who had gone off to the war had returned safely.

I take the pictures because they help me to resolve something of a contradiction in the way I feel about the wars. I am, for the most part, against war – though not all wars. I have little sympathy or admiration for the politicians who send young people off to fight and kill. I don't much like the institutions of the military. But I respect the soldiers, and their bravery and their comradeship, even if I don't always think much of the purpose for which they were sacrificed. What can we feel about the Crimean War now, except sorrow for the young men who died in it?

Taking pictures and posting them helps me to resolve this. Partly I think it's because the memorials inevitably subvert their own purpose. The point of the memorials is to commemorate the sacrifice of the soldiers who died in the memorialized war, and thus to make that sacrifice – and future sacrifices – seem glorious.

But the permanence of the memorials, and the long list of names of dead boys which outlast any personal commemoration can't help but remind the onlooker that their names don't live for evermore. The world goes on, the war dead are for the most part forgotten. Those who survive get on with their lives, apart from ritualized remembrance. The first picture I ever took, of a war memorial on a small church in Elsworthy Road, Swiss Cottage, summed it up perfectly; the head of the surmounting angel had come off, and it bore the motto 'Their names liveth for evermore', but the names themselves had been eroded by pollution and were unreadable. It has since been restored, but it was the unrestored one that had the most poignancy and meaning for me.

So the war memorials actually constitute – for me, anyway – a statement against war. So I'll keep taking and posting the pictures.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Review of Les Chansons d'Amour

Mild and slightly pointless French romcom with a pretty young man in a three-way relationship with two pretty young women, who has to endure the death of one of the women and then subsequently discovers he's gay and ends up in a relationship with a pretty young Finnish boy. Lots of musical interludes that don't really fit. Liberal, affectionate, but a bit boring.

Review of Spy Game

Came to this one a bit late, watched it on DVD, but really hated it - a spew of American cultural superiority, with Robert Redford as someone rejecting the values of the institution to which he has devoted his life - the CIA - and sacrificing everything including his pension - to save a younger man who he has recruited and manipulated, and to whom he now feels he owes some sort of debt of honour.

Just horrible, especially the faux-liberal concern about the having to kill lots of "rag-heads" in the pursuit of the greater good. Not much angst about the people who get killed in the implausible raid on a Chinese prison that our hero organises for the movie's finale.

Review of Maps to the Stars


I watched 'Maps to the Stars' at a little cinema in Perpignan and was stunned. This is a really good film that seems to have made very little impact – perhaps it hasn't even been released in the UK yet, though why an english-language film should be released first in France escapes me.

It is a very dark account of celebrity culture, with horrible Hollywood folk managing their careers and each other against a background of incest, self-mutilation, drug abuse and recovery. There is a bit of consolation misery going on – the rich and famous have such miserable lives, all that wealth and fame doesn't make them happy after all. But it does bring out the weirdness of a world in which one's fortune really can be at the same time huge but also dependent on a very fragile kind of reputation capital – and one that's reproduced by a process that is both very much about personal relationships and also complex and mysterious to the participants.

The acting is great, the script and the filming really good too.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

On bereavement

My dad, Norman Green, died on 23rd June 2014. We were on holiday in France when my mum phoned to tell me the news, and we were home within about eight hours. I didn't say much, or feel much, during the journey home. Ruth did most of the practical stuff – dealing with Ryanair, for example, who were surprisingly decent. The nuts and bolts of getting home seemed to consume most of my mental energy, of which there wasn't much.

I hadn't had much preparation for bereavement. No-one close to me had died since my grandmother in the early 1980s. Then, I'd not felt anything until the funeral and the final sight of her coffin, at which I had cried and cried and been unable to stop. I didn't cry at my dad's funeral, though I came close the night before, sleeping on the floor of what I must now learn to call my mum's flat. From time to time I have felt ashamed that I haven't felt more sad. Some people say that this is normal and that it will hit me later; we have talked about whether it was because in some sense the progress of dad's dementia meant that we had already adjusted to the fact that he was no longer with us. I don't know.

Leon and I had a discussion about whether it was acceptable to post a message about dad's death on Facebook. In the end I decided that it was OK, and I am extremely glad that I did. The messages of condolence and support that I received were very welcome. I was really grateful for them, and will try to do the same for others in the future. I never realised how important they could be, and how little it matters what the actual words are.

We all felt very well looked after by my mum and dad's synagogue. I've been to funerals where a rabbi has delivered a lame and impersonal eulogy to someone that they self-confessedly didn't know, but nothing like that happened here. The officials at the ceremony were really kind and supportive – it helped that the main functionary was Scottish and  looked and sounded like a Jewish version of Sean Connery.

The rabbi was happy for Leon and I to say a few words ourselves. There had been something of a comedy moment the night before the funeral, when he counselled us that there were some things to which our eulogies could not refer; any enjoyment that dad had taken from eating non-kosher food, or any pleasure he had derived from mixed dancing. Although these  had indeed been among dad's favourite things we managed not to mention then, though the rabbi had looked distinctly nervous when Leon began the lead-in to a joke about a rabbi and a Catholic priest on a train.

Although I do a lot of talking for a living I wasn't at all prepared to give a eulogy for my dad, even though I had imagined myself doing exactly that from time to time. But I managed to say how much of what I considered important in myself had been formed in early conversations with my dad. He brought me up to be against racism from a very early age.

He was a visceral, tribal socialist, and would have cut his hand off before he allowed it to vote anything except Labour. The basics, he explained, were that the Tories wanted high unemployment and low wages, and Labour wanted the opposite. When I was still really little he enjoyed telling me how Nye Bevan had called the Tories vermin. And when I rather mindlessly repeated what the TV news had said about trade unions, dad had told me that working people needed unions to defend themselves against bad and unreasonable employers. Although he had put himself through night school to qualify as an optician, and was therefore both a professional and a businessman, he continued to think of himself as a working class person who done well, not as someone who had risen out of his class.

Like everyone, he was a man of his time. He had liberal views on homosexuality – I can remember him telling me that it was wrong to discriminate against or punish people for how they were born. He never really got feminism or women's rights, though Ruth and her mother schlapped him to Greenham for a CND demonstration. I can remember his bewildered expression as a group of protesters chanted 'no men' at us, who had come there to support them. He couldn't understand  why they would do that, and as I tried to explain it to him realised that I couldn't either.

Dad was not a bloke-ish man. He was mainly uninterested in sport, though he liked to watch boxing and took me to watch “professional wrestling” at the Metropole in Brighton when I was small. He didn't care much about cars, though he'd been proud to own a Jaguar for a few years, as a sign that he had done well for himself. He resolutely refused to do DIY, insisting on his inability to do anything with his hands, even change a light bulb or a plug. Of course, as a man of his time he never did any housework at all – it would be wrong to say he refused to do it, because my mum has been a woman of her time and would never have asked him. In his later years he often asked if there was anything he could do to help her, but he wouldn't have been capable of finding the dishwasher, much less loading or unloading it.

His non-blokeishness extended to his love of children. He was really, really happy to play with little children, to make funny faces and noises for them, play peek-a-boo, and so on. He loved all of his five grandchildren – Louis, Lexei, Juliana, Raquel and Selin. He was proud to have been present for the birth of his own children at a time when the expectation was that 'expectant fathers' paced up and down outside the delivery room.

First and foremost dad was an anti-fascist, of the physical force kind. Of everything that he done in his life he was most proud of his time in the 43 Group. I don't think he was a physical brave man, despite his long participation in various kinds of martial arts training, which makes his involvement in street-fighting all the more special. He loved that he had been part of the group, constantly read and re-read Morris Beckman's book about it, and was always happy when he had the opportunity to talk about it with a new audience.

As he got older our views diverged, and we disagreed about Israel and Zionism in particular. But I loved him all the same, now as much as ever, even though I will never hear his voice again.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Review of "Two Faces of January"

Much better than I'd been led to expect - a nice, taut thriller with plenty of tension and suspense without implausible plotting or ridiculous stunts. Just good characters involved in a plot that could almost happen to anyone (apart from the defrauding big-time gamblers in New York - that couldn't happen to most people).

Review of "Search for Sugar Man"

Watched this remarkable film on iPlayer (from BBC4) last night. The story of a hispanic-american musician and songwriter whose career fails, and then discovers years later that he had had a massive following in South Africa, a country he had never visited, where his records circulated in bootlegs but also legal copies from which he received no royalties.

A couple of fans wonder what ever happened to him, amid rumours that he committed suicide live on stage. But they track him down and find him live and impoverished in Detroit, where he works as a day-labourer doing demolition for construction firms.

That would be amazing enough. It's made more remarkable because:
  • the guy - Sixto Rodriguez - was important to several generations of young white South Africans as part of the process by which they distanced themselves from the prevailing repressive White culture and political system
  • and he seems to have been utterly at peace with his lack of musical success - to have become a worker-poet with a degree of engagement in local politics
  • and when, at the film's conclusion, they bring him to South Africa to perform a series of concerts to his huge fan base, he is every inch a rock star - not cowed or hesitant at all, and totally on top of his material and his performance.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Figs, haemorrhoids and Israelites

I went to this rather interesting set of talks at the Royal College of Physicians,
which included a tour round the garden. One of the highlights was an explication of the Doctrine of Signatures - the idea that the Almighty had cleverly signposted what plants might cure particular conditions by making them look like they would. So figs are good for haemorrhoids, and haemorrhoids look like figs. At least they did to people in the C16th - so much so that the word 'fig' meant a haemorrhoid. When Shakespeare makes characters say "I care not a fig" he was being just a bit ruder than I suspected, though this post makes it all a bit more complicated.

It did rather make me wonder about the golden haemorrhoids which the Philistines apparently placed in the Ark of the Covenant when they sent it back to the Israelites via express oxen-post, as described in 1 Samuel 6:4. The King James version gives this as emerods, but it is clearly meant to be haemorrhoids, as the more recent translations indicate. Perhaps the King James translators just mistook the text's figs for haemorrhoids, and the Philistines were putting golden figs in the ark. Any thoughts, anyone? I asked the speaker (Dr Henry Oakley, a Garden Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians) but he didn't even know about the haemorrhoids in the Ark, much less whether they were really figs. Is this an example of the dumbing down of medical education?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Using a Globastar phone in Wales


More than fifteen years ago I worked in the mobile satellite services industry, helping to develop a handheld satellite phone business. ICO Global Communications, the company that I worked for never made it to service launch; but part of my role was competitor intelligence, so I had the opportunity to use an Iridium phone during a holiday in Morocco. Then, the phone was huge and vaguely weapon-like, the service was dreadful even on a beach with a huge sky, and I also found cellular coverage wherever I went – even in the Atlas Mountains.

Still, I was a bit thrilled to have the chance to try out a Globalstar handheld last week. The Pembrokeshire coastal path turns out to be much less well covered by cellular signal in 2014 than the Atlas Mountains were in 1998, and I badly needed to keep in touch with my parents because my father was unwell.

The Globalstar phone, a GSP-1700, was much cuter. It still had the solid, rotatable aerial, but extending it no longer looked like I was deploying a ground-to-air missile. The phone itself was about the size and shape of a mid-1990s cellular phone with a similar monochrome look and feel. It was lighter, though, and with a pleasant hand-feel.

It was really easy to use – I never looked at the manual or documentation – and worked very well once I'd got used to the fact that it did take a little longer to acquire a signal. It didn't work in the shadow of buildings or under wet trees, but other than that it was reliable and straightforward.

And the voice quality was great – clear and with no perceptible delay or echo. Much better than the voice quality that I got when I did occasionally pick up cellular signal, and actually better than much of my experience with cellular even in urban areas. The phone really did help me to 'connect with family even when my adventures took me out of coverage', just like it says in the PR material.

Nice to know that the mobile satellite service industry came right in the end, even without the benefit of my contribution.